Popcorn Hour C-300 and Popbox V8 Review
The market seems flooded with media streaming options these days and with so many of them out there, a company really must find a way to stand out and add value if it really wants to be taken seriously and Popcorn Hour has done just that. While these systems may not be as robust as something such as Kaleidoscope, they are also less than one-tenth of the price. With the largest Popcorn Hour costing $349 and the Popbox V8 costing $129, it is fairly obvious that this is a fairly inexpensive way to get full HD content streaming around your home network.
When I first got wind that I would be receiving the Popcorn Hour C-300 and the Popbox V8 units for review I was pretty excited to say the least. I have been dabbling in the media streaming area for quite sometime now, but in an effort to keep the peace at home I opted to go with the user friendly Apple TV setup. However the thought of streaming a ripped Blu-ray across the network gets me a little giddy, sad I know.
When the units arrived I could not wait to get everything setup and then reality hit me; I had a lot of work to do creating a network share, getting the proper content setup for all of the different file format tests and several other key pieces that needed to be addressed. Additionally there were even more things that I had to get done that I would not have dreamed being a problem. This review has taken quite a while to put together but I thought that it needed to be done this way in order to give a complete picture of what is all entailed in setting up and maintaining this type of system.
Having a background in IT infrastructure certainly helped me when setting up the system. I did not record the total time that I spent installing and setting up the system, but I know for certain that I spent at least a full day setting up and stabilizing the environment and an additional 8 hours troubleshooting the media jukebox and further refining the performance of the system. This solution is not as plug-n-play friendly as my Apple TV whole house setup, however, Apple cannot stream a fully ripped Blu-ray complete with HD audio codecs either, and after a little ‘training’ even my better half has taken a shine to the system. Now if I could only get all of her monster movies ripped and available she will be a happy camper.
Unpacking and Setup:
The units came packed with all of the necessary peripherals including an HDMI cable, remote controls and a radio antenna for RF remote control for the C-300. The C-300 also has the capability of adding an internal HDD as well as a Blu-ray disc drive. I installed and tested this functionality and found it to be a snap to do, as the system is fairly intuitive for anyone that has some technical knowledge. The options are actually pretty endless with the ability to plug in a USB drive or an external SATA drive that has content and stream directly from that as well. In fact I do not hesitate to say that for streaming media in your home theater or through out your house, there is probably no more complete solution at or below the C-300 price point.
The only real technical (hardware related) problem that I had during the setup phase was not actually an issue with the Popcorn Hour system but an issue with my home network. I ripped several Blu-ray discs in both raw and .iso formats in order to test out the functionality of the units. When I went to playback the ripped content I ended up with pixelization, choppiness and the audio would completely drop within a matter of seconds. I immediately recognized these issues to be symptomatic of a bandwidth issue. I was more than concerned as I had units hard wired into a gigabit switch. After some troubleshooting I found that the bandwidth was not the problem. In fact, while I am sure there are those that would disagree with me, gigabit speed is not even relevant when streaming 45 plus gig across the network as the PCH-300 and Popbox both have 10/100Mb adapters. The real problem turned out to be with the internal processor of the data switch and its inability to process that much data at once. I was only using a small business/consumer grade managed 8-port Cisco switch and not a catalyst unit or anything in that class at the time. I have since installed an older, but much hardier switch to handle that load and have not had an issue since. Now I am not suggesting that anyone thinking about setting up this type of solution go install an enterprise business class data switch, I am only suggesting that the $50 unit at the local retailer may not be adequate.
The NMJ (Network Media Jukebox) is where I had the most difficulty with the Popcorn Hour system. Not in the setup process itself but rather in the area of consistency. The vast majority of these issues were related to the naming conventions of the ripped Blu-ray discs most of which were very generic names like ‘Film’. Once I understood that there is actually a preferable naming convention for the files, which includes the name and year that the film came out, all of the inconsistent data related issues went away.
The second issue that I ran into with regard to the NMJ, as have many of their customers, is that there can be occasional issues with getting the artwork to update with IMDB as the data source. For some reason the NMJ wants to put the data in the wrong folder. There has been an ongoing discussion on several NMJ threads complaining about this and the discussion has been going on for quite a while. The general consensus is that Popcorn Hour will eventually fix the issue with a firmware update a little later down the road; in the meantime a workaround has been found using a database editor; NMJ2.
With the setup complete and the media jukebox going it was time to do some quality checks with the streaming audio and video.
Audio and Video Quality:
I can say with all confidence that there is absolutely no difference in audio and video between the C-300 and a standard Blu-ray player. When I compared the picture and sound between the C-300 and my PS3 the picture clarity and details are all there and the sound is absolutely phenomenal. Full 1080P and DTS-HD-MA with all of the glorious beauty you have come to expect from Blu-ray. I honestly thought the picture would suffer a bit and the audio would come across a little less formidable for some reason, but I was wrong.
Popcorn Hour has partnered with several companies offering applications and games to try and create some additional value out of the unit, however, most of them are not something that I would consider relevant or useful other than the YAMJ. With the absence of common applications such as Netflix, HULUPlus or even VuDu, it is easy to see where Popcorn Hour has the most growth opportunity.
YAMJ – (Yet Another Media Jukebox):
The only application I got some use out of was the YAMJ, as the smaller Popbox V8 does not support the native NMJ (Network Media Jukebox) that the C-300 support. This is probably my biggest issue with the Popbox unit as it makes the whole experience a little inconsistent. Sure, I could run the YAMJ on the C-300 for a more consistent experience, but the YAMJ is a lot more arduous to work with and getting consistent data could require some knowledge of minor database administration.
There are many options and combinations out there for streaming media. What I like about the Popcorn Hour solution, and I imagine it to be true for DUNE as well, is that there is not much risk of an update actually killing your system. One of the biggest issues I have with HTPC (Windows) and the Apple/MAC solution is that OS updates can often times be a catalyst to chaos for your media streaming solution. With the Popcorn Hour the updates are designed with system functionality as the priority so there is little chance of applying it and losing the ability to watch a movie or listen to music.
I want to clarify my data switch and overall technical issues with the Popcorn Hour. Because of my background I threw a lot at the Popcorn Hour such as copying a large data file to the device while simultaneously streaming a Blu-ray. The issues I had were definitely NOT with the Popcorn Hour but with my other gear. I was actually very impressed with the way the Popcorn Hour handled it all.
I am really enjoying my time with the Popcorn Hour solution and do not look forward to having to send it back. Truthfully, the only thing stopping me from diving head first into this particular solution is that I do not know what the DUNE unit is capable of. We are working on getting one of their units in for review and hopefully that will not take too long. I will absolutely be getting rid of the old Apple setup and moving on to one of these more robust solutions in the very near future.
Overall the system performed as advertised and I would absolutely recommend anyone seriously contemplating a network media jukebox solution to consider this one as an option. Hopefully we will be able to have something to compare the performance and features to soon so we can give our members real apples to apples comparison between Popcorn Hour and Dune. Until then, please feel free to discuss this in our Popcorn Hour Network Media Jukebox discussion thread.
Result: Highly Recommended!